Birthday Burnings and Pleas for Mercy

Josh and Me (2)

Josh,

You would have turned 37 today. Mom and I may not have necessarily enjoyed the pleasure of your company this very day. You would likely have pulled a double at the restaurant. But we would have caught up with you on your day off, maybe even watched the Super Bowl this Sunday, played perhaps with properly inflated balls.

I would grill you a ribeye, medium rare, just as you liked it. Mom would have baked you one of those killer “Black Magic” cakes – a Heff birthday tradition. We would have sipped a Zin brought by you purchased inevitably above my pastoral price point. And the preacher in Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 would have smiled upon us: “There is nothing better for a person than he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment?”

But you are gone. I miss you.

Love,

Dad

Those horrible words sink in yet another heart-stabbingly relentless time. Just when I thought I survived January 18, the 28th brings another of grief”s battering waves.

Once again, where does a grieving father turn? He goes to His father above. And He never disappoints.

There this miserable-memory morning I read these words from another familiar-with-suffering servant:

Job gives utterance to a mood which is not foreign to us when he says, “Am I a sea, or a whale, that You set a guard over me?” In certain moods of anguish the human heart says to God, “I wish You would leave me alone; why should I be used for things which have no appeal to me?” In the Christian life we are not being used for our own designs at all, but for the fulfillment of the prayer of Jesus Christ. He has prayed that we baffled-to-fight-bettermight be “one with Him as He is one with the Father”; consequently God is concerned only about that one thing, and He never says “By your leave.” Whether we like it or not, God will burn us in His fire until we are as pure as He is, and it is during the process that we cry, as Job did, “I wish You would leave me alone.” God is the only Being who can afford to be misunderstood; we cannot, Job could not, but God can. If we are misunderstood we “get about” the man as soon as we can. St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself.” God never vindicates Himself, He deliberately stands aside and lets all sorts of slanders heap on Him, yet He is not in any hurry. We have the idea that prosperity, or happiness, or morality, is the end of a man’s existence; according to the Bible it is something else, “to glorify God and enjoy Him for ever.” When a man is right with God, God puts His honor in that man’s keeping. Job was one of those in whom God staked His honor, and it was during the process of His inexplicable ways that Job makes his appeal for mercy, and yet all through there comes out his implicit confidence in God. “And blessed is he, who is not offended because of Me,” said Our Lord (Oswald Chambers, Baffled to Fight Better: Job and the Problem of Suffering, Discovery House, 1990, p. 41-42, emphasis added).

I’m not a 21st century Job. Not even close. But I do need mercy. Thus I appeal.

Sovereign God, if I belong to that privileged company “Guardians of Your Honor,” and I believe I do, only by grace, then burn away as You please. But have mercy on me for I am but a sinful, grieving man dealing with this birthday’s burnings. I admit it. I sometimes wish you would leave me alone. But not so much that I entertain offense at my Savior and abandon my implicit confidence in You.

Shalom-Seeking on Steroids

shalom_everybody

Last Sunday for OGC’s 22nd anniversary I preached a message on Jeremiah 29:1-14 called Our City, Our Mission. You can listen to the audio here.

In verse seven of that passage the prophet tells the exiles from Judah living in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city to which Yahweh has sent them. The word for welfare is the Hebrew word shalom. It often gets translated by the English word peace. The word flourishing captures well the comprehensive nature of the term.

In his book, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just, Tim Keller shares an example of a radical form of shalom-seeking that illustrates a serious commitment to this ethic within a community. It’s a bit long but worth the read.

An intriguing real life example of an entire community doing justice and seeking shalom is laid out in Yale professor Nora Ellen Croce’s book Everyone Here Spoke Sign Language.  In the 1980’s Croce was researching hereditary deafness on Martha’s Vineyard.  In the seventeenth century the original European settlers were all from a region in Kent, England, called “the Weald” where there was a high incidence of hereditary deafness.  Because of their geographical isolation and intermarriage the percentage of deaf people increased across the whole island.  By the nineteenth century one out of twenty-five people in the town of Chilmark was deaf and in another small settlement almost a quarter of the people could not hear. (Today, because of the mobility of the population and marriage with off-islanders, hereditary deafness has vanished.  The last deaf person born on the Vineyard died in 1952.)

In most societies, physically handicapped people are forced to adapt to the life patterns of the nonhandicapped, but that is not what happened on the Vineyard.  One day Croce was interviewing an older island resident and she asked him what the hearing people thought of the deaf people.  “We didn’t think anything about them, they were just like everyone else,” he replied.  Croce responded that it must have been necessary for everyone to write things down on paper in order to communicate with them.  The man responded in surprise, “No, you see everyone here spoke sign language.”  The interviewer asked if he meant the deaf people’s families.  No, he answered, “Everybody in town–I used to speak it, my mother did, everybody.”  Another interviewee said, “Those people weren’t handicapped.  They were just deaf.”  One other remembered, “They [the deaf] were like anybody else.  I wouldn’t be overly kind because they, they’d be sensitive to that.  I’d just treat them the way I treated anybody.”
Generous JusticeIndeed, what had happened was that an entire community had disadvantaged itself en masse for the sake of a minority. Instead of making the nonhearing minority learn to read lips, the whole hearing majority learned signing.  All the hearing became bilingual, so deaf people were able to enter into full social participation.  As a result of “doing justice” (disadvantaging themselves) the majority “experienced shalom”–it included people in the social fabric who in other places would have fallen through it.  “When they had socials or anything up in Chilmark, why, everybody would go and they [the deaf] enjoyed it, just as much as anybody did.  They used to have fun–we all did….They were part of the crowd, they were accepted.  They were fishermen and farmers and everything else….Sometimes, if there were more deaf people than hearing there, everyone would speak sign language–just to be polite, you know.”  Deafness as a “handicap” largely disappeared.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Croce’s research was the revelation of how hearing people had their own communication abilities enhanced.  They found many uses for signing besides communication with the deaf.  Children signed to one another during sermons in church or behind a teacher’s back at school.  Neighbors could sign to one another over distances in a field or even through a spyglass telescope.  One woman remembers how her father would be able to stand on a windy cliff and sign his intentions to fishermen below.  Another remembers how sick people who could not speak were able to sign to make their needs known.
In other words, the “disadvantage” that the hearing Vineyarders assumed–the effort and trouble to learn another language–turned out to be for their benefit after all.  Their new abilities made life easier and more productive.  They changed their culture in order to include an otherwise disadvantaged minority but in the process made themselves and their society richer.
Martha’s Vineyard was a unique situation.  However, in every time and culture, the principle holds.  The strong must disadvantage themselves for the weak, the majority for the minority, or the community frays and the fabric breaks.
This sounds a great deal to me like 2 Corinthians 8:9. For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. The Mega-strong disadvantaged Himself in the ultimate way for the mega-weak that we might become mega-rich in spiritual blessings. I know of no other motivation that will suffice for seeking the welfare of one’s city whether on steroids or any other degree of disadvantaging.

The Antidote for Abandonment

Since 2005 and my bout with tongue cancer, two months out of every year tend to make me more reflective on my life than the remaining ten. They are March and this month, August.

March, because of the surgery on my tongue to remove the cancerous tumor threatening my life and the removal of all the lymph nodes from the right side of my neck (affectionately referred to as a radical neck dissection). Lovely. You can read my most recent musing about that event and time here.

Now I find myself in another August seven years removed from finishing treatment which followed that surgery. It consisted of no less than thirty-eight radiation treatments to the tongue and neck along with four separate infusions of two kinds of chemo, the last of which occurred as a continuous infusion over four LONG days 24/7 in August of 2005. For a description of that particularly nasty napalm-like drug click here.

I just finished reading several entries from my journal in August of ’05. Suffice it to say it wasn’t pretty. Not pretty at all. It almost pained me to read my relentless postings of nausea, vomiting, mucous, gagging, metallic taste, sleeplessness, fatigue, scabbing, gagging, peeling, etc., day in and day out. The cumulative effect took its toll. On September 6, 2005 I wrote:

I know I’m not, but I felt abandoned last night. I kept praying as I turned off the lights, “Please, don’t abandon me God.” It wasn’t a good day. I was more tired than usual. Slept till 1 PM. I did some reading while watching football and then just gave in to the TV. Felt nauseous much of the day. Threw up around dinner time. Tongue is still sore. Mouth is still sore. Cheeks are swollen. Lower lip is still scabbing. It just goes on forever. Mucous still forming. What a routine of drudgery. When will relief come? Lord, have mercy. I am rebuked by Bonhoeffer’s final letter to his wife. He never felt abandoned [in prison] for all the support he had. I feel ashamed.

I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again. In seasons of such overwhelming agony where one wonders if ever the end will come and the temptation to believe that God indeed has abandoned you to your difficulty overwhelms, one and only one antidote suffices.

Pray for mercy.

Over and over again I prayed the same prayer. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

We must take our cue from the psalmist in Psalm 42:1-3a.

With my voice I cry out to the LORD;
with my voice I plead for mercy to the LORD.
I pour out my complaint before him;
I tell my trouble before him.
When my spirit faints within me,
you know my way!
Do you feel abandoned in your particular struggle or trial?
Take it from one who wondered if the suffering would ever end but today got to preach somewhere around his 250th sermon post-tongue cancer. He knows your way. Cry out to Him. Plead for His mercy. Pour out your complaint. Tell him your trouble. And never, never, never, cease to do so until you break through or He takes you home.
We have never done all we can do until we have prayed and prayed and prayed. Never give up. Pour out your heart before Him. Plead for mercy.
Mercy there is great and grace is free.
Lord, you never abandoned me through my year-long battle with tongue cancer. I am so very, very grateful. Help me to redeem that time for the sake 0f those wondering if you have abandoned them and may they employ the same antidote as I did even if the trial goes on and on – the simple prayer, Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

The Law & Looking to Another Quarter for Help

If the means of grace (prayer, study, etc.) constituted some form of bartering/payment with God for His favor, I’d be in deep weeds. At least in term of the excruciatingly slow pace with which I’ve been slogging through Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. To my chagrin I’ve yet to work my way through this classic in its entirety. A long time ago I decided to take a mere paragraph a day as part of my daily devotions. To date I’ve managed to get only as far as Book Two, Chapter 8. I can’t honestly remember when I started on this pilgrimage.

That present chapter concerns Calvin’s exposition of the moral law of God. Paragraph three of chapter 8 addresses one of three uses of the law in our lives that, as he puts it, causes us to descend into ourselves.

When, under the guidance of the Law, we have advanced thus far, we must, under the same guidance, proceed to descend into ourselves. In this way, we at length arrive at two results: First, contrasting our conduct with the righteousness of the Law, we see how very far it is from being in accordance with the will of God, and, therefore, how unworthy we are of holding our place among his creatures, far less of being accounted his sons; and, secondly, taking a survey of our powers, we see that they are not only unequal to fulfill the Law, but are altogether null. The necessary consequence must be, to produce distrust of our own ability, and also anxiety and trepidation of mind. Conscience cannot feel the burden of its guilt, without forthwith turning to the judgment of God, while the view of this judgment cannot fail to excite a dread of death. In like manner, the proofs of our utter powerlessness must instantly beget despair of our own strength. Both feelings are productive of humility and abasement, and hence the sinner, terrified at the prospect of eternal death (which he sees justly impending over him for his iniquities), turns to the mercy of God as the only haven of safety. Feeling his utter inability to pay what he owes to the Law, and thus despairing of himself, he rethinks him of applying and looking to some other quarter for help.

Altogether null. Despair of our strength. Utter inability to pay.

These words and phrases describe the descent into self brought about by the effect of the law leading to the sobering admission that we stand no chance whatsoever of fulfilling the law in our own pitifully paltry strength.

Reformers call this the pedagogical use of the law for a reason. It teaches us of our absolute need for the mercy of God in Christ as the only haven of safety. It guides us to the cross.

Romans 8:3 – 4 says

[3] For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, [4] in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

The Son of God is that quarter of help, in His work on the cross, the only quarter and the completely able quarter of help at that, which can relieve us of the misery of our conviction before the crushing weight of the Law’s righteousness and make us acceptable in a holy God’s sight. There is no other quarter of help that can do that for you and for me.

Whether we read through Calvin at breakneck speed or a snail’s pace, the grace of God in Jesus Christ remains the same. He is mighty to save. Mighty to save. No condemnation now I dread. I am my Lord’s and He is mine. Grace, all is of grace.

No More "Nike" Christianity

After the picnic on Sunday I crashed in front of the tube to watch the final round of the Masters golf tournament.

Have to admit, I was curious to see if Tiger would rise from the ashes and win his first major since his crash and burn.

As always he sported the Nike insignia on his person, a living billboard for the sportswear giant. Who doesn’t know the motto that goes with the logo?

I wonder how many Christians approach their spiritual lives with the same mentality. I just need to do it. I’ll just try harder. I’ll spend more time in the Bible, pray more, memorize more Scriptures, etc, etc, etc. Just do it. That’s the ticket to God’s being pleased with me.

Don’t get me wrong. These means OF grace matter. But when they become means FOR grace we’ve missed the boat altogether. Means of grace serve to connect us to the One who died for us to wipe the slate clean of the guilt of our sin AND to apply the 100% righteousness of Christ to our spiritual accounts. This is huge. It means that God looks on us and deals with us as if we had perfectly obeyed the law because Jesus obeyed it for us. He is our righteousness and we are complete in Him (Colossians 2:10). They do nothing in the way of meriting acceptance before God. There is nothing more we can do in that regard. Jesus did it all for us.

This is why we must not live a “Nike” form of Christianity, but rather a Cross-centered form of Christianity.

Lane and Tripp explain in How People Change:

Do you know what it means to live a Cross-centered life on a daily basis? Some Christians think that the Cross is what you need to become a Christian and get to heaven. They think, I need my sins forgiven so that I escape God’s judgment when I die. But once that is taken care of, what matters is that I follow Christ’s example. I need to roll up my sleeves and get to work! The tricky thing about this perspective is that it is partially correct. You do actively pursue the obedience that comes from faith (Rom. 1:5; 16:26; Gal. 5:6). You do engage in spiritual warfare! However, you are never to minimize your continuing need for the mercy and power of Christ in the process of becoming like him (emphasis added, p. 183).

This means that we need daily to keep coming back to verses like Romans 12:1 – I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. The mercies of God make us holy and acceptable in His sight. That’s why we can present our bodies to Him for His use.

We need daily to keep coming back to verses like Hebrews 10:14 – For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. Jesus’ death accomplished our perfecting in God’s sight. The tense of the verb communicates a past action with ongoing consequences. This status never changes regardless of our goof ups! It’s on that basis that we experience the ongoing transformation that is our sanctification, being made holy as He is holy.

We need daily to keep coming back to verses like Romans 8:1 – There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But PC, I just lost my temper for the umpteenth time. I just took another look at that website I had no business clicking on. I just turned yet another time to my idol of choice for comfort in the face of temptation. What do you mean there is no condemnation for me in Christ Jesus? Just what I said. Paul’s words not mine. This deal is not about our performance; it’s about His provision.

Forget about “Nike” Christianity. Just do it gets you no where. Why not rather adopt the Cross-centered Christianity motto?

Just believe it.

I’d like somebody to make a logo for that. I’d put it on my sport shirt in a heartbeat.

How Do We Do Justice?

The question matters. The prophet Micah chides Israel for her penchant for reducing true religion in chapter six of his book to religious offerings of all kinds (vv. 6-7).

He then reminds them in v. 8 of God’s three-fold formula:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

My post concerns only the first component – to do justice. What does that look like? The Hebrew word is used in the Old Testament some 418 times with various nuances of meaning, mostly pertaining to courts of law with a forensic sense.

It can, however, have a different flavor. For example, Psalm 106:3 reads, Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times. The synonymous parallelism in the Hebrew suggests equality between doing justice and doing the right thing.

Similarly, Job 29:14 says, I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. Observe, again, the close relationship between righteousness and justice.

Isaiah 1:17 couches justice within a varied range of right behavior which further reinforces this nuance of justice as doing right by others.

Learn to do good, seek justice, correct oppression, bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Matthew Henry commented on this first requirement of true religion:

We must do justly, must render to all their due, according as our relation and obligation to them are; we must do wrong to none, but do right to all, in their bodies, goods, and good name.

Bible scholar S. Lewis Johnson offered this in a message on Micah 6:6-8 –

What is meant is simply the upholding of that which is right or what is accordance with his word in law and in life.  In other words, commitment to the Lord God, both as it pertains to the Lord and as it pertains to fellow Israelites.  Do you know how Luther translated this?  Luther had a happy way of getting right to the point of things, and he often manifested it in some of the ways in which he translated the Bible.  He says, “He hath showed thee, O man, what is good and what doth the Lord require of thee.  But to keep God’s word.”  That doesn’t seem to be too good a translation if you know Hebrew.  Actually, God’s word is not there and keep’s not there.  But he says, “To do justly,” what is to do justly?  Well, to do justly is really to keep God’s word.  That’s the way he rendered it, to keep God’s word.

So when Tim Keller in our Gospel in Life study during the 9:30 hour chooses to use the term justice to talk about what it means to do right by way of showing mercy towards the poor, the orphan, the widow, the oppressed et al, it seems to me he has hit the mark in interpreting texts like Micah 6:8 and Luke 10:25-37 and James 1:26-27.

Does Keller use provocative language to get our attention in the way he addresses the need for evidence of true religion in terms of ministries of mercy on our part that flow from true gospel life within? Absolutely!

Perhaps this is precisely what we need to blast us out of our spiritual complacency and propel us out into a needy world with compassionate deeds of mercy that meet urgent needs lest we prove unfruitful (Titus 3:14).

Your thoughts?